Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘optics’

Happy 50th Anniversary, Star Trek!

As I write this, the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the original Star Trek series is coming to an end. I can’t say I remember the original run — I’m not going to say how old I was, or whether I existed at all. I strongly suspect that my parents were watching something else at the time — my mother loved Westerns and crime dramas, and my father enjoyed variety shows (remember those?). Better to have come to Star Trek as a young adult, though, than to never have embraced it at all. I’m enough of a geek to admit that when I shared a three-bedroom apartment with a couple of other Trek fans many years ago, I was thrilled to learn that the last four digits of our ZIP+4 code were 1701. Perfect!

This evening, to celebrate, I watched (on demand) Building Star Trek, a documentary from the Smithsonian Channel. Lots of closeups of Original Series artifacts and clips from the Original Series. I remember seeing some of the props at the Air & Space Museum way back in the 1990s — I was then surprised at how wooden they looked up close, and how the costumes were made of the cheesiest polyester double-knit. (Bleah!) I was also pleased (though, given my work, not entirely surprised) that the “predicted-by-Trek” technology described in the show came almost entirely from optics: laser weapons, a nanoscale “tractor beam,” entangled photons, and the “invisibility cloak.”

Obviously the Internet has been filled with tributes all day long. My favorite is the one from NASA; it includes a team from NASA Goddard, just down the street from me.

And, speaking of NASA, how cool is it that the space agency launched OSIRIS-REx toward an asteroid tonight? The timing of the launch can’t be just coincidence, can it? Listen to the launch announcer — yep, he slips the phrase “to boldly go” in there. Of course.


Charles Hard Townes, 1915-2015

Yesterday I awoke to the news that Charles Hard Townes, a 1964 Nobel laureate for fundamental work on maser and laser physics, had died on Tuesday, January 27. In six months and a day, he would have turned 100 years old, but you can still think of this as his centennial year, in my opinion.

During my years working at OSA, I met six Nobel Prize winners; five are still with us. But Dr. Townes always looked hale and hearty, even well into his 90s, and he always went to conferences with his beloved wife, Frances — I thought that was so sweet of them. He was always the gentleman and not the least bit overbearing. At the symposium on the exact 50th anniversary of the first laser, when Dr. Townes gave his talk on the history of laser physics, he took a red laser pointer out of his pocket and used it so matter-of-factly, without harping on the fact that it — and a huge amount of today’s optical technology — has its roots in the insight he once had on a humble park bench just a few blocks from the White House.

I was already planning to write an article about Dr. Townes for an upcoming issue of OPN, so his death adds a new poignancy. I have to get back to work now, so I’ll leave you with a few links to some of the obituaries that have come out.

Welcome to the International Year of Light!

Yes, I know I haven’t updated this blog in a long, long time.

Back in November, I started to write a roundup of all the great things that had happened in optics and photonics during the previous month. I actually wrote this much:

What an exciting month for the field of photonics! Granted, I was often busy and didn’t have time to write cogent posts about the breaking news (I’ll come back to that later), but I was following everything avidly.

Of course, the major expected occurrence was the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Every year I hope for one of two things: a female physics laureate (about which I’ve posted in the past) or a Nobel awarded for some optics-related discovery. Well, this year we got the latter: three scientists who invented blue LEDs, which in turn led to the development of white LEDs (the white diodes are blue diodes covered by a yellow phosphor). The very next day, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to three men “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy” — optical imaging techniques that allow us to see the tiniest molecular details inside cells.

Some, but not all, of the laureates are members of OSA – The Optical Society, which fired off press releases about these prizes. OSA signed up one of the chemistry laureates to give some remarks…

I’m certain that I was about to write “… to give some remarks at Frontiers in Optics, the Society’s annual meeting,” or something like that. But then I got busy with my freelance writing and my job applications and all sorts of other things, and the days ticked by, and then my friend Yvonne Carts-Powell wrote an awesome post on the subject in her blog, The Science of Heroes. So I just put my draft post on the virtual shelf and dived into the usual end-of-year holiday craziness.

Now it’s a new year — a time for renewal under any circumstances. But this New Year’s Day marks the beginning of the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies. I’ve been excited about the IYL since I first heard about it, so of course I had to wrote a feature article all about it for Optics & Photonics News. I’m following the IYL team on Facebook and Twitter, and during 2015 I pledge to fill this blog with lots of exciting posts about the science of light. Happy New Year indeed!

Great citizen science

Want to bring the science of light to the masses? This week I found a fascinating example of demonstrating Thomas Young’s double-slit experiment with a big cardboard box, an eyepiece and bright sunlight. The ScienceDump blog got the video from Veritasium.

Yes, to those of us who actually have studied physics, the competing theories of light as waves and particles might be old hat. But, as you can see in the video, it’s not old hat to the passersby  who haven’t thought about the subject since grade school.

I’m certainly going to check out these websites to see what other interesting demonstrations of “citizen science” are out there. If you have had a chance to bring science to the masses, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

An optical scientist to watch: Jun Ye

I’ve heard of Jun Ye before, mainly through writing and editing articles about optical frequency combs, super-accurate atomic clocks and related topics. Today I got word that Ye, a fellow of NIST and JILA, has been elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a high honor indeed.

Ye studied for his Ph.D. under John (“Jan”) Hall, one of the Nobel Prize winners I was lucky enough to meet while I worked for OSA – The Optical Society. As folks like Ted Hänsch and Steven Chu can attest, studying under, or working closely with, a Nobel laureate is a great foundation for a scientific career. Keep an eye on Ye for more interesting research.

Arthur Schawlow’s 90th

Today Arthur L. Schawlow would have turned 90 years old. Now, I don’t go around memorizing the birth dates of Nobel physics laureates as a matter of course, but Schawlow has been on my mind quite a bit these last few months, because I wrote a biographical article about him, and it’s the cover story of this month’s issue of Optics & Photonics News. It’s actually the “open content” offering for this month, so everyone can read it, not just OSA members. 🙂

Why did I want to write about Schawlow? I confess that before I joined the OSA staff in 2005, I had never heard of the gentleman. But one of my first tasks was to compile a list of interesting things that had happened in 1975, the year that OPN’s predecessor publication, Optics News, was founded. So I looked up the name of that year’s president of OSA, and it turned out to be Schawlow, so I asked our creative director whether she had any interesting photos of him in the files. She found several, and one in particular — of a grinning Schawlow poised to administer a Ping-Pong paddle spanking to another OSA official from the 1970s — made me roar with laughter. Since I had also noticed by then that Schawlow was a Nobel laureate for something or other, I suggested (after wiping the tears away) that we might want to pick something a little more dignified for the page of 1975-era trivia I was assembling. We ended up republishing the famous snapshot of Schawlow with his “laser ray gun” and double balloon, which now graces the cover of the magazine.

Over the years, I got more curious about Arthur Schawlow. I cross-checked the list of Nobel laureates and past OSA presidents and found that his name was the only one on both lists. I learned that he and Charles Townes co-wrote one of the most important papers in laser history back in 1958, but Townes was still around to enjoy LaserFest and Schawlow — his brother-in-law, even — was not.

So I pitched the idea for a feature story on Schawlow to my editor, and I got the assignment to write it for this round-number anniversary of his birth. I hope I struck a good balance between enumerating his scientific achievements and capturing the personality that made him so memorable to OSA members of an earlier generation.